In 2012, during CMA Fest in Nashville, Tenn., Clare Bowen stood onstage at what was then known as LP Field (these days, it’s Nissan Stadium) with the rest of the cast of a brand-new television show, Nashville. Bowen, a native Australian, had just arrived in town and was “completely wide-eyed, standing around and having no idea what was going on,” she recalls to The Boot.
“No one could have prepared me for what was going to happen — but they didn’t tell me that we were gonna be standing on this stage in front of more people than I had ever seen in my life!” Bowen continues. “I was like, ‘Don’t these people know that I’ve got 18 dollars in my bank account?'”
In the years that followed, Nashville’s popularity skyrocketed, as did Bowen’s comfort and ease onstage. On the TV drama, she played the shy, talented Scarlett O’Connor, who begins the series as a waitress at the Bluebird Cafe but quickly becomes a singer-songwriter in her own right. Like her former character, Bowen loves music, but hasn’t always pursued it directly, and she’s struggled to believe in herself and her abilities in the past; in fact, Bowen began work on her debut solo album nearly five and a half years before finally releasing the self-titled project on Friday (July 12).
Although growing pains are inevitable with any major career change, Bowen says she never regretted leaving her character behind. “It was definitely a big step to take, but more freeing than anything else,” she explains. “Scarlett had all these things happen to her, especially being treated badly by men and allowing it to happen, and that was always, like, the younger version of me. It was sometimes painful to watch her get mistreated time after time and keep going back to the same person who wasn’t changing and wasn’t willing to.”
The real-life Bowen and the fictional O’Conner have more differences than they do similarities. While the character is a native southerner with the accent to prove it, Bowen hails from New South Wales, Australia (and also has the accent to prove it). Telling her own story — as opposed to O’Conner’s, or some muddy combination of the two — was important to the singer as she crafted Clare Bowen, and she suspects that getting to the marrow of what she had to say is partially why it took so long to complete the record.
That, and the fact that much of its contents were tough to talk about. At age four, Bowen received a devastating diagnosis: She had cancer, and was given two weeks to live. When she set out to write her album, she knew she wanted to include a song about that experience — not only for the sake of telling her story, but also in remembrance of the many children she knew who didn’t survive their illnesses.
“I don’t know anyone else who survived my round of chemotherapy. It was experimental, and very extreme,” Bowen relates. She has a memory of getting into an elevator with her mom one day early in her treatment plan, when her chances of survival seemed very unlikely: “I remember asking my mother, ‘Are there heaters in heaven? Because it’s really cold here.’ I know that was crushing for her, but that was my mindset at the time, because I knew that I was dying,” she recalls.
While she was in the hospital, Bowen made friends with another young girl named Jackie. “To me, she was so grown up and so big and so strong, and she knew everything,” the singer remembers. “She showed me everything about the hospital, where it was fun to go, and that it was okay to be what we were.
“There was a little magazine, called the Chemo Chronicles, for all the kids, and in the back, there was a section [dedicated to saying] ‘Congratulations, you get to go home today,’ and along with that was the condolences section,” Bowen continues. “When I left the hospital, my name was in the congratulations [section], and Jackie’s was in the condolences section.”
The memory of Jackie and all the other children who lost their lives will always been an important part of Bowen’s identity. When she first got the chance to perform as herself — and not as Scarlett — she knew she had to showcase that aspect of her life. That song became “Warrior,” the last track on Clare Bowen.
“It became this anthem, stemming from beautiful, beautiful Jackie, who I think about every day,” Bowen explains. “And all my other friends who didn’t make it out, who I know they’re onstage with me every time I go out there.
It’s kind of hard to talk about,” she admits.
Once she wrote the song, however, Bowen realized that “Warrior” connected with all kinds of people, not just those who shared her experience of going through childhood cancer. “There are so many people out there who feel like what makes them not fit in is written all over them. I want them to know that whether your scars are in your mind, your heart, your body, your soul — they don’t define you. They’re beautiful,” Bowen says. “Battle scars are part of what makes them so precious.
“I think that’s part of my mission with music, too,” she adds, “to reassure people they’re not alone.”
Some well-intentioned people encouraged Bowen to make an album as Scarlett, but ultimately, the singer knew that she and her character had entirely different stories to tell. Nashville — the show, the town and all the people she’s met through and in them both — gave her the confidence to believe in the power of her own story and her own musical inclinations.
Clare Bowen resides more in the Americana realm than Scarlett’s more mainstream brand of singer-songwriter country ever did, and that difference in style can in part be traced back to their wildly different roots. Growing up in Australia, Bowen’s cultural inheritance was a “people’s music,” informed by Australian country and folk.
“I guess the sound of the earth in Australia is such a big thing for me and my family,” she explains. “It would be hard to put a genre on it, but if I had to, it has, like, Celtic, folk, mostly Americana roots, I suppose — but as someone from a different side of the world.”
Even though she’s from the other side of the planet, Bowen still had her first experiences with Nashville early on. As an artist who names Dolly Parton as one of her most important influences, she jumped at the chance to perform the country icon’s “Coat of Many Colors” for the Grand Ole Opry’s Opry Goes Pink Event, aimed at raising breast cancer awareness. When she was onstage, however, Bowen had a sudden flashback.
“I had this mad flash of memory, of sitting at my granddad’s kitchen table when I was really, really little, and Dolly was playing on the wireless. I think it was actually WSM radio,” she recounts. “That was one of those weird, full-circle things. It just knocked me off my feet a little bit.”
Bowen will return to the Opry on Friday to celebrate the release of her debut album. With contributions from artists such as Lori McKenna, Caroline Spence and Bowen’s husband, Brandon Robert Young, Clare Bowen is the product of a supportive community and a story that the artist has long been waiting to tell.